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Mon, Apr 14, 2003

Saving A Local Airport

PA Pilots Fight Town Leaders To Save Chambersburg Municipal

If the Borough of Chambersburg (PA) Council gets its way, the town's 93-acre airport will be in private hands sometime this year. But aviation enthusiasts still hope they can find a way to save the strip before it winds up being subdivided into home tracts or industrial property.

Airport supporters are now gearing up for a big fight, even though the council has already decided to authorize the sale of the airport to the highest bidder by the end of the year. Still, N68 supporters hope to convince the town government that the public-use airport can turn a profit.

It's That Important

"It's just hard to give up without a fight because it's so important," said pilot Don Shoop. "I don't think there's anything on my mind except this." Shoop and other pilots are trying to convince borough officials to keep the airport in city hands.

"You're not going go out in this valley and find a place to put another airport," said J.R. Sides, president of Chambersburg Skydiving Center Inc., and, because no one else will take the gig, de facto airport manager. "If this is gone, it's gone for good."

There Is Hope

Council President Bill McLaughlin did give airport supporters a shred of hope at a borough meeting March 25. "You've got eight months," he told airport supporters. "Bring us something that could change our minds."

Easier said than done. The borough has seemed determined to sell the 34-year-old airport since a 1989 study reported it just doesn't mean much to the area's economic development. Further, the study concluded that financially, doesn't make sense for Chambersburg to continue operating the airport.

In fact, the only reason the airport is still in city hands, according to officials, is because Chambersburg accpeted federal grants to make improvements at the strip in 1983. In return, the borough had to keep N68 open for 20 more years.

The 20 years is up now. Already, the borough has decided how to spend money from the proposed sale of the airport. City leaders hope to put the money into a public works program.

Besides, many members of the borough council say they just don't think the borough should bear the costs of owning the airport by themselves.

The Case For The Airport

Business executives, including executives from Target and Kmart, and politicians like US Senators Bob and Elizabeth Dole and former Gov. Mark Schweiker, have used the airport to visit the county, Sides said.

Medical flights use N68 to ferry patients in and out of Chambersburg and the surrounding area for transplant surgeries and other life-saving procedures.

How do the numbers stack up at Chambersburg? In 1999, almost 2000 pilots and passengeres used the airport, according to a report written 12 months later. "The Economic Impact of Aviation in Pennsylvania," was prepared for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The N68 usage numbers compare to 800 who used Gettysburg's airport and 5,290 who used Carlisle Airport the same year, according to the report.

"The airport is busy," pilot and businessman Lynn Rotz said. "All the hangars are full. We have people coming in every day to inquire about storing their airplanes."

In fact, Sides said there's a waiting list of more than 50 people who want to rent hangar space at N68. The lack of rental space is "one of the major, major problems" at Chambersburg's airport, said ultralight pilot Kevin Wetzel.

Chambersburg Skydiving Center, one the biggest operations of its kind on the East Coast, does make a sizeable contribution to the local economy, said the business' chief financial officer, Kathie Shepherd.

"We brought in $500,000 here (in 2002)," she said. "We spend that $500,000 in the community. We buy all our services locally, if we can." Shepherd said the skydiving business pumps at least another $1 million a year into area motels and restaurants because most of its clients travel here from Washington and Baltimore.

"To generate this kind of income, we have about 1,000 new individuals who jump here every year," Shepherd said. "For every dollar they spend here, they spend at least $1 in the community."

There's also been talk about basing a flight training school at N68. But the possibility that Chambersburg Municipal might be sold shortly after such a deal is completed makes even the stoutest hearts in aviation business beat a little faster. Wallets soon disappear and the prospect school operators fade away, not to be seen again. Supporters of the airport say the borough is overlooking its ability to make money, provide jobs and spur economic growth throughout the area. What they want, they say, is a solid commitment that Chambersburg will stay in the aviation business for the foreseeable future.

FMI: www.borough.chambersburg.pa.us

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